Thursday, April 10, 2008

An Imperialist Fairy Tale Come True

The distinguishing characteristic of the richest country in the world, a distinction the U.S. enjoyed even in the 18th Century, was always its insatiable appetite for more. An awesome superiority of arms married to an unlimited willingness to shed blood insured that "enough" never made it into the national vocabulary.

Intent on establishing their "natural boundaries," the American Colonists and their descendants drove out the British, "cleared" the continent of the "backward" Indian nations, extended their borders through war, enslaved millions of Africans, absorbed a tidal wave of cheap labor and foreign capital while developing the fantastically abundant resources of the territories they conquered, all the while protected from the predations of European powers by two huge oceans in an age of sailing ships, finally becoming the most staggeringly powerful nation the world had ever witnessed.

This dizzying leap to world power had humble beginnings. When Revolution broke out in 1776 the Colonies were a coastal enclave claiming a territory of 369,000 square miles. Six years later they added the Northwest Territory (275,000 square miles) and the area south of the Ohio River (205,000) square miles). The following year George Washington referred to the country as a "rising empire." By 1800 official figures confirmed that the national territory had more than doubled in the previous quarter century, with a total area of 892,135 square miles. In 1803, with the British Navy strangling his hopes for an overseas Empire, Napoleon dropped the 885,000 square miles of the Louisiana Purchase in Washington's lap - at the lip-smacking price of $17 a square mile. Florida's 59,600 square miles were added next, bought from Spain in 1819 for $5 million and a promise to surrender claims to Texas. Texas was promptly annexed in 1845, swelling the national territory by 389,000 square miles, with editor John L. O'Sullivan of the influential Democratic Review explaining that it was the "fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." An 1846 treaty added the 285,000 square miles of Oregon Country, which was followed two years later by the conquest of Mexico, an addition of 529,000 square miles. In 1853 the Gadsden Purchase acquired 30,000 square miles, rounding out the U.S. with a total of 3,026,798 square miles, a 720% increase in size in three quarters of a century, a feat never before seen in the world.

Over the next half century the U.S. absorbed an additional 716,666 square miles, including the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Panama Canal, making the national territory more than ten times the size of the original Thirteen Colonies. Cuba's 44,218 square miles were technically independent of the U.S., though the Platt Amendment gave Washington permanent intervention rights should Cubans get any radical ideas about charting their own destiny. Furthermore, in just a few more years (in 1912) Alaska's 586,400 square miles would be incorporated as a U.S. "territory" - the first step towards eventual statehood.

The indigenous nations of North America in the path of this juggernaut were first uprooted, then herded onto "reservations," and finally subjected to forced assimilation amounting to either genocide or something very much like it. In the half century after 1880 upwards of 80% of Indian youth were dispatched to remote boarding schools where they were forced to cut their hair, dress in Euro-American clothing, speak "proper" English, and practice Christianity, all part of an effort to divest them of their cultures and turn them into obedient sub-members of the country reputed to be the "last, best hope" for liberty on earth.

Presiding over this amazing sequence of expansion and cultural obliteration was a plutocratic class extracting the fat of the land and selling its surplus abroad, leaving the great mass of people living "more wretchedly than the cave man," in the words of Jack London. After decades of brutal class warfare designed to crush a unionization movement intent on effecting a less lopsided distribution of wealth, these propertied elites cast their eyes on the East in hopes of founding a world empire. When Cuba and the Philippines rose in rebellion against a decrepit Spanish Empire, they seized the day - and Madrid's colonies.

As the U.S. made its ascent to empire, industrial expansion was the culture, accumulating wealth its sole preoccupation. Rail and telegraph linked a national market stretching from Boston to California; immigrants swarmed through every port; urban factories vacuumed youth off the farms; child labor soared; profits cascaded into private trusts. With a population of 75 million the U.S. possessed an industrial capacity capable of providing for 150 million. To absorb the surplus, bankers and corporation owners engineered a shift from an economy of need to an economy of acquisition. By 1900 a third of the world's manufactured products were American made, with the U.S. exporting iron and steel goods, leather boots, machine tools, bicycles, and electrical supplies.

The advertising industry invested half a billion dollars a year in teaching Americans to want things that had never existed before: Hoover vacuums, Detroit gas ranges, canned meat (Armour and Swift), washing machines, porcelain bathtubs, Whitman's bon-bons, store-bought orchids, Waterman fountain pens, F.A.O. Schwartz's toys. Almost overnight Nabisco, Singer and Kodak became household words.

All of Europe fretted over the "the American peril," much as Americans are encouraged to worry about China today. European farms were worked with McCormick Harvesters. American watches told time to the Swiss and American silk caressed the French. American pig iron, steel rails, billets from Carnegie's mills, and locomotives from East Coast factories helped modernize Britain. Remington typewriters turned up in British tents in South Africa and California flour and canned goods found their way to Siberian towns. African and Russian bridges were girded by American steel.

In the West, steamships shrunk the great Pacific Ocean to a commercial pond: A hundred ships a week departed San Francisco for China, laden with beans, flour, pianos, and wine; to Japan went printing machinery, whiskey, tools, and paper.

Accompanying the rapidly mushrooming economy was a swelling imperial vanity. European visitors to the States were constantly reminded that they had come to the "finest nation on God Almighty's Earth."

The Sources:

Scott Nearing, "The Making of a Radical: A Political Autobiography," (Harper, 1972)

Howard Zinn, "A Peoples History of the United States,"(Harper, 1980)

Louis Adamic, "Dynamite - The Story of Class Violence in America," (Chelsea House, 1958)

David P. Thelen, "Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit," (Little, Brown,and Company, 1976)

Richard Drinnon, "Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building," (Schocken, 1980)

Noel Kent, "America in 1900," (M. E. Sharpe, 2000)

Sidney Lens, "The Forging of the American Empire," (Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1974)

Ward Churchill, "Struggle For The Land - Native North American Resistance to Genocide, Ecocide and Colonization," (City Lights, 2002)

-----Michael K. Smith is the author of "Portraits of Empire" and "The Madness of King George" (illustrations by Matt Wuerker), both from Common Courage Press. He can be reached at

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